Realistic training is an often-used phrase in the emergency services. Most would define this as training in an environment that looks and feels as close to that which the participant would experience if undertaking that activity ‘for real’.
So why is realism so important?
It is accepted that how people react is partially based on collective experience. We can be very good at comparing our present situation with many that have been previously experienced and quickly develop a way forward that is based on what has or has not been successful before.
This learning is cumulative so the more experience that an individual has, the more options there are available on which to base decisions.
Providing a lifelike situation in which the training and exercising can occur is important. It reinforces the way the mind processes the learning from that experience and makes that experiential comparative process more effective for decision-making.
Realism adds to the initial impression and feeling of being engaged in a situation but manufactured realism should not cause the participants to start to think more about how realistic the environment is, rather than actually getting on with the job.
Additionally, the provision of a realistic environment is not solely the responsibility of the organisers of the event; there needs to be an element of investment from those partaking.
There will almost always be training or exercise conditions that detract from true realism and these are necessary to ensure that operations are focused and that objectives are achieved.
Whilst being aware of this can be difficult for the participant to forget, the more that individuals allow themselves to be immersed in the scenario, the better the learning from that simulation.
The difference between training and exercising
Training is a continuing activity, primarily used to develop and maintain competency. Whilst exercising will provide a similar effect, it generally has shorter-term goals such as to test competent individuals and teams in their performance in executing established procedures against expected standards.
Exercising serves to test the adequacy of the procedures themselves, the suitability of the standards against which performance is measured and can even be a measure of the effectiveness of training.
Individual emergency services are responsible for the training of their own personnel and generally, this is achieved to a good standard; especially when considering the ever-increasing pressures on time, finances and resources for the variety of activities that these organisations now undertake.
However, when simulating operational incidents of a larger scale, it is necessary to involve more than a single agency.
There are few incidents that occur that involve only one organisation and despite programmes such as JESIP that have gone a long way to push emergency responders to work together, multi-agency training and exercising is one aspect of preparedness that is not undertaken particularly well.
There are good reasons for that; everyone is busy, these events take time to plan, require commitment of resources and personnel that are decreasingly available and even when committed to an exercise might still have to leave at short notice due to operational requirements.
A good bet would be there is not a watch manager on a fire station anywhere that has not at some point seen all the best laid plans for that day’s training dissolve whilst the watch sit somewhere waiting for a keyholder. Another good bet would be that this scenario is replicated throughout all the emergency services.
Scale that up to a large exercise that could be significantly affected by the loss of just one of its participating agencies not being available then why bother at all?
Well, quite apart from the regulatory obligation to do so and all the reasons already stated to improve individual and team performance, training together gives all a better awareness of capability and limitations.
Exercising together tests not only that awareness but also those capabilities in a competitive setting when one organisation’s needs can conflict with another. Experiencing and resolving those issues in an environment where it doesn’t really matter if it goes wrong or one within which the scenario can be reset and tried again has to be a better option than waiting for the day when it does matter and those failures have more serious consequences.
It is vital to attend these events with no fear of ‘getting it wrong’ or of being seen to fail. It is only in seeing what goes wrong that improvements can be made to rectify whatever is causing the failure.
It can be argued that, whilst being an undoubtedly frustrating affair, an exercise that generates many failures and learning points is a more successful and productive event than one at which everything goes exactly as expected.
There is also the financial aspect to consider. Training and exercising is expensive. Whilst we all know that not training and exercising can be far more expensive, pulling together funding and resources for exercising is a constant challenge.
It is also easy to forget how many can be involved. A large-scale incident in the UK will involve not just category one responders such as police, fire, medical services and local authorities but also category two responders such as transport, utility and communications providers. Add the voluntary sector to the list as they are vital component of a comprehensive response structure and the number of organisations is challenging to manage.
Planning large-scale multi-agency simulations
Maintaining a realistic environment for large-scale events takes much planning and time.
There are two ways to begin the process:
- Know the exercise objectives and design the scenario to meet them
- Have a scenario and identify appropriate exercise objectives
In either case, the scenario needs to be relevant or at least result in the relevant exercising of policies and systems and personnel being required to undertake relevant operations.
For SIMEX series exercises, the approach has been that there is a main causative factor with defined associated scenarios and hazards.
Organisations intending to participate need to consider that scenario, identify the benefits of participation and develop both their own objectives and any objectives that result in interaction with other participating groups.
There is then an engagement with each organisation to explore their desired objectives, develop injects that will meet those requirements and to link injects so that where there is an overlap that will affect more than one organisation, this is taken advantage of to bring agencies together both at a practical level for joint operations but also in the command, control and communication structures implemented for the exercise.
The SIMEX series of exercises evolved from a three-day module on the University of Portsmouth’s MSc in Crisis and Disaster Management and was initially an opportunity to give the students an awareness of the international coordination structures following a sudden onset catastrophe overwhelming the response of a country and resulting in international assistance mobilising.
This grew to involve physical assets that would supplement the ‘table top’ activities. Initially supported just by Hampshire Fire and Rescue Service, the lead organisations in 2018 included both the original organisations as well as RedR UK and L2S2
SIMEX18 involved about 3,000 participants and was the largest exercise of its kind.
It consisted of two exercises; a domestic, national and an international exercise, both with the same causative factor of a slow-moving low-pressure storm system with associated high rainfall and storm surge causing flooding and high winds resulting in structural damage. Additional associated factors such as landslides, large numbers of casualties and environmental complications were included to meet the objectives of the attending organisations.
The domestic exercise allowed UK-based capabilities to practice the response to this type of event bringing local level category one response of fire and rescue services, ambulance HART, regional police casualty bureau, Environmental Agency and Coastguard/RNLI with an additional exercise structure simulating a Tactical Coordinating Group (TCG) with a notional Strategic Coordinating Group (SCG) and Scientific and Technical Advisory Cell (STAC).
Additionally, local medical facilities were simulated by the University of Portsmouth’s Centre for Simulation, Health and Care with practicing and student clinicians, a rest centre facilitated by the Red Cross and Islamic Relief was set up and a variety of other voluntary organisations attended with a Voluntary Agency Coordinating Cell being facilitated by Serve On.
The international exercise provided a scenario with the same causative factor but in the fictional environment of an overseas situation. This results in the implementation of United Nations (UN) standards for coordination of responding capabilities integrating into the affected country’s existing command and control structures. These responding teams vary from UN teams to government provided responders such as the UK International Search and Rescue (ISAR) and Emergency Medical Teams (EMT) to International Non-Governmental Organisations (INGO) such as Humanity and Inclusion and Save the Children.
There are some generalisations but in both exercises, personnel at the operational level of activities are generally seen to perform well; especially after the initial phase of organisations getting to know one another has passed. This is because organisations do tend to train at this level effectively and with some regularity.
The areas where there are often breakdowns and learning points generated are in the coordination structures at and between the tactical and strategic inter-agency levels. This is because these activities are just not practiced enough.
Resources and finances are tight but more than that; time is tight.
Many organisations will say that there is not the time for the right people to attend at this level of activity at an exercise. This often results in the alternate provision of personnel. Whilst some would see that as a good development opportunity and there is some validity in that view; there is also the consequence that the people actually required to undertake these roles never get the chance to practice or be tested.
Organisations should consider these events as a vital element of preparedness and commit to participating, encouraging the attitude of involvement and build into working schedules the time necessary for the right personnel to attend the event and to have others involved in planning, implementation, evaluation and review.
That will ensure the most effective use of the time and resources available and go a long way to achieving a realistic training environment.
For more information, go to www.hantsfire.gov.uk